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A Tapestry of North Korean Flavours: Weaving Life Stories through Food

A Korean woman talks to a guest
Photo courtesy Connect North Korea

On Saturday June 24, a North Korean food exhibition took place at the Methodist Church in New Malden. The event was was part of the Mayor of London’s Community Weekend, which encourages people to engage with their local communities, and was organized by the charity organization Connect: North Korea to raise awareness of their work and also to raise some funds to help with the issues faced by North Korean refugees. The idea was to provide the public with the opportunity to taste original North Korean dishes cooked by natives. While treating the guests to the food of their homeland, seven amazing female chefs shared memories of their life in North Korea that contributed to our understanding of their experience and culture.

Korean women prepare food while smiling
Preparing the food earlier in the evening

They had prepared a diverse menu that truly captured the essence of a typical Korean meal. Naturally, it began with rice and kimchi, which are fundamental elements of any Korean meal. Among the panchan (appetizers or side-dishes) guests could sample sprouted soybeans (kong-namul), stir-fried eggplants (gachi bokkeum), acorn jelly (dotori-muk). Additionally, there were pork dumplings (doeji-gogi mandu), pancakes with green onions and vegetables (yachae-jeon), kimchi noodles (kimchi-japchae) and bean curd stuffed with rice (dububap). For the dessert, guests were offered rice cakes with a sprinkling of red bean powder (chaltteok). The crowning jewel of the table was the main specialty of North Korean cuisine – Pyongyang-style cold noodles (pyeongyang raengmyeon). Everything was enormously delicious, and there was an abundance of food for everyone to enjoy.

The atmosphere at the gathering was warm and informal. On one hand, conversations revolved around light topics unrelated to politics or other serious matters. On the other hand, food is always a deeply personal and intimate subject that sometimes reveals more about us than we realize. While the chefs presented their dishes, they first spoke about the ingredients and how to cook them, before delving into memories of when and how they enjoyed these foods back in their homeland. These recollections included challenging memories related to hunger and food scarcity, as well as touching stories of childhood and simple family joys.

One particular story that I liked the most was that of Ria, who, while introducing the famous Pyongyang-style cold noodles, recounted her experience of visiting the renowned Onnyugwan restaurant in Pyongyang. She was so enamored with the dish that she managed to secure an extra ticket and returned to the restaurant for another visit. Access to Onnyugwan is typically obtained through special tickets distributed through enterprises. However, it is also possible to acquire tickets through other “non-official” means, as Ria did.

The guests posed numerous questions, which often elicited surprise and smiles from the chefs. For instance, the topic of acquiring acorns for dotori-muk and transforming them into jelly substance prompted a discussion. The audience was also curious about where to find acorns in London today, if they plan to cook the dish themselves. When asked about the recipes per se, the women initially struggled to find a response. However, they ultimately agreed that the most of their dishes were ordinary and simple fare that they had learned to cook by observing their mothers or grandmothers’ everyday chores.

A Korean woman serves up food to some guests
Photo courtesy Connect North Korea

The event showcased not only the flavors and aromas of North Korean cuisine but also the profound connection between food and culture. Food serves as a gateway to understanding a people’s traditions and history and that is how it fostering mutual understanding. Through the preparation and sharing of their beloved dishes, the women opened a window into their personal stories and the resilience of the North Korean community. In this sense, the tasting event in New Malden served as a beautiful reminder that behind every dish lies a story, a heritage, and a shared humanity.

by Maria Osetrova

Maria Osetrova is a Korean Studies researcher majoring in Korean culture, cultural politics and ideology (both South and North). One of the lenses she uses to study Korea is its national food narrative. She received her PhD from Yonsei University (Republic of Korea) with a dissertation entitled “National Food and Gastronationalism in Contemporary Korea”. She is also an author of a chapter “The State Leader as Inventor of Food Traditions in the DPRK” in the “Invented Traditions in North and South Korea” (ed. by A. Jackson, C. Sintionean, R. Breuker, C. Saeji, Hawaii University Press, 2022).

Two loaded plates of assorted Korean food

All photos by the author except where credited otherwise.

One thought on “A Tapestry of North Korean Flavours: Weaving Life Stories through Food

  1. I had the pleasure of attending this event and was most moved by the commentary from the chefs and their suffering in North Korea. A cookery book with their narratives would be a really great follow up to this event.

    I wish the chefs well in all their future endeavours in the UK.

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